The Wrong Economic Climate for Clean Energy

For all the obstacles President Obama has faced—the terrible economy and the bitter, partisan bickering—he managed to accomplish much of what he set out to accomplish.  He implemented a recovery plan to lessen the impact of the financial crisis, got health care reform through Congress, and even passed a financial reform bill. These are impressive legislative achievements, whatever you think of the specifics of the bills. But Obama failed to achieve his fourth—and arguably most important—objective: passing a clean energy bill.

Daniel J. Weiss says President Obama never really had much chance of getting clean energy legislation passed Congress. In an excellent and much-discussed The New Yorker article, Ryan Lizza described how a bipartisan clean energy bill fell apart in the Senate. In Lizza’s telling, miscommunication among the main players doomed the legislation. But as historians will tell you, focusing on narrative details can sometimes cause you to miss the underlying structural factors at work. In this case, Weiss says, Lizza fails to hit on the real reasons clean energy legislation never had a chance.

Weiss argues that clean energy legislation had little chance of passing during a serious economic crisis. As Weiss points out, since 1970—when the environmental movement really got going—no major environmental legislation has passed when the unemployment rate was over 7.5%. In fact, almost all our major environmental laws passed when the unemployment rate was averaging less than 6%. It’s easy enough to see why. When Americans are out of work they are less inclined to think about longer-term issues, and more inclined to worry about where their next paycheck is going to come from. And when unemployment is high, it's easy for opponents of environmental legislation to make the argument that environmental regulations will only make economic pain worse. With unemployment above than 8.5% since the day Obama took office, passing major environmental legislation was always going to be a difficult task.

Especially with coal, oil, and other energy interests quietly spending enormous amounts of money opposing clean energy legislation. As Weiss notes, found that oil, gas, and utilities companies spent $500 million lobbying Congress over the first 18 months of Obama’s administration. A Center for American Progress Analysis found that 6 of the 7 companies that spent the most lobbying Congress during this period were oil and gas companies—with Exxon Mobil alone spending $34 million lobbying.

As it was, the Republican strategy was to oppose essentially all legislation in order to keep the Democrats from being able to say they accomplished anything. The flood of energy lobby money—2/3 of which went to Republicans—helped ensure that no Republican would cross the aisle to support clean energy legislation. It also helped convince a few Democrats to defect on the issue of clean energy, which left the Democratic party short of the 60-vote supermajority needed to pass the legislation on their own.

The economy is beginning, slowly, to improve. When unemployment does finally come down, the public will probably start to show renewed interest in clean energy. But with Republicans likely to control one or both houses of Congress after November, we may have to wait until 2012 to get the clean energy law we so desperately need.

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